Over the past few years, India has witnessed an explosive growth in the demand for smart devices including smartphones, tablets, laptops, smart watches and smart televisions on the back of innovation. With new and improved devices flooding the market almost every day, the device lifespan has reduced significantly, as consumers replace their devices more frequently to stay up to date with the latest technology. This has resulted in a growing volume of gadgets being discarded, leading to the generation of electronic waste (e-waste).
E-waste typically includes discarded computer monitors, motherboards, cathode ray tubes, printed circuit boards (PCBs), mobile phones and chargers, compact discs, headphones and white goods such as LCD/plasma televisions, air conditioners and refrigerators. These devices when dumped in landfills along with other solid waste can pose a serious threat to human health as well as to the environment. This is because they contain many deadly chemicals and metals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, polyvinyl chlorides, brominated flame retardants, beryllium, antimony and phthalates. Considering the environmental and health hazards posed by e-waste, proper management of such waste has become important.
The e-waste menace in India
The amount of e-waste generated in India has lately been growing at an alarming rate. As per industry estimates, the current rate of e-waste generation in India is 4.56 times higher than the annual e-waste processing capacity. Further, a recent study conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India and EY points out that India is among the top five e-waste generating countries in the world. The other four are China, the US, Japan and Germany. The study states that the country generates about 2 million metric tonnes (mt) of e-waste annually and it is increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 30 per cent. E-waste generation in India is expected to reach 5.2 million mt in 2020. The key factors driving the growth of e-waste in the country are – the ongoing digital transformation, social and economic growth, rapid technology advancement, and dumping of the electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) waste by developed countries in developing countries.
In terms of sector-wise e-waste generation, the government, public and private sectors act as the primary source, accounting for about 70 per cent of the waste generated. Individual households contribute only 15 per cent while the remaining 15 per cent is generated by manufacturers. In terms of equipment, computer gear accounts for the largest share (70 per cent) of the total e-waste generated in the country. Telecom equipment comes second, with a share of about 12 per cent while electrical and medical equipment account for 8 per cent and 7 per cent of e-waste generated respectively. Household e-scrap makes for the remaining share.
Recognising the need to curb the rising e-waste pollution, the government issued the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules in 2011. These rules mandated only authorised dismantlers and recyclers to collect e-waste.
In October 2016, the government notified the E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016 to replace the 2011 rules. Under the new rules, the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR) was introduced that mandated producers of EEE to specify targets to collect the generated e-waste and channelise it to authorised e-waste recyclers. The new rules also mandated electronic equipment manufacturers to restrict the use of hazardous metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium.
In March 2018, the government amended the rules, which revised the e-waste collection targets of producers to 10 per cent for 2016-17, 20 per cent for 2017-18, with an incremental increase of 10 per cent every year until 2023. Further, the new e-waste rules brought new producers, including start-ups, under the new EPR regime.
The purpose of formulating e-waste management rules was to ensure that the e-waste is channelised through authorised dismantlers and recyclers. However, despite these laws, close to 80 per cent of the e-waste continues to be broken down by the informal sector. While India has around 178 registered e-waste recyclers, many store it in hazardous conditions due to the lack of adequate capacity to handle such waste.
The amended rules do not include solar e-waste, which is a new form of electronic waste. With the government looking to scale up the deployment of solar energy, it is expected that the country will witness an increase in the generation of solar e-waste in the coming years. According to a study by Bridge to India, the country’s volume of solar photovoltaic waste is estimated to increase to 200,000 tonnes by 2030 and around 1.8 million tonnes by 2050. This poses a serious concern especially as the country’s e-waste rules have no laws mandating solar cell manufacturers to recycle or dispose of waste.
Over 95 per cent of the e-waste generated is managed by the unorganised sector, which has a well-established collection network comprising e-waste collectors who sell the waste to scrap dealers. However, these dealers do not have the technical expertise to deal with this waste. Further, the presence of toxic substances in e-waste can cause severe health problems among workers handling the waste. For instance, PCBs, which are used extensively in smartphones, contain heavy metals such as antimony, gold, silver, chromium, zinc, lead, tin and copper. The method of extracting these materials from circuit boards is dangerous and involves heating the metal in the open. Moreover, recyclers in the unorganised sector use primitive methods like acid stripping and open-air incineration for processing e-waste. These methods are extremely unsafe and cause pollution by releasing toxins into the environment. Meanwhile, formal recycling methods manage e-waste in an environment-friendly manner by using the best available technologies. However, there is no large-scale organised e-waste recycling facility in India, and thus recycling occurs primarily in the unorganised sector. According to industry estimates, only 1.5 per cent of the 2 million mt e-waste generated in the country is formally recycled. This calls for adequate measures to promote coordination between the two sectors and streamline the workforce engaged in the informal sector towards the formal sector.
In sum, the rising amount of e-waste generated in the country has become a cause for concern, and it requires immediate attention. The central government needs to work in tandem with the state governments to ensure stringent implementation of the e-waste rules and impose penalties on violators to make them accountable. The government also needs to remodel its e-waste management rules to include methods for recycling the growing amount of solar e-waste in the country. It is imperative for industry stakeholders to expedite the process of setting up recycling and dismantling plants that follow technologically advanced methods for e-waste management. The public should also be sensitised about the issue and made an active stakeholder in the management of e-waste. Therefore, a collaborative approach needs to be adopted to involve the government, industry stakeholders as well as the general public for combating the e-waste menace.
Kuhu Singh Abbhi